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What makes people stop at red lights? Other people, study finds

Posted by on October 31st, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Would you stop?
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

It might be peer pressure. It might be geometry. It’s almost certainly some of each.

But following up on a study that found that (as we reported last year) 94 percent of observed bike users in Oregon stopped for red lights, a Portland State University civil engineering student has also found that every additional person waiting next to you on a bike makes you 78 percent less likely to run the light on your own bike.

That’s assuming that you happen to be riding through one of the seven intersections observed, four of which were at Portland intersections that have dedicated bike signals and are frequented by utilitarian commuters. The intersections in Beaverton, Corvallis and Eugene did not have bike signals.

The new study’s author, Samson Thompson, also measured how much various other factors influence red-light running: gender, the presence of a bike signal, helmet use, the amount of cross traffic, the presence of an adjacent motor vehicle and whether a biker had witnessed a previous violation while approaching the red light.

“The number of cyclists already waiting has the biggest effect by far,” Thompson said Friday, presenting his findings as part of a masters thesis defense. “It’s probably because there are more eyes on the road, but it’s also because bike infrastructure, bike boxes, are not very big. So somebody could be physically impeded from running the red light.”


The second most influential factor in getting people to follow the law while biking: having a car stopped next to them.

Less powerful factors, all of which increased the chance that someone would jump a red lights: witnessing a previous violation, not wearing a helmet, and being male.

In all, the study used video footage and direct observation to capture the decisions of more than 2,500 bike users.

Thompson said he gathered video data from the four Portland intersections because video footage had already been captured there, for a separate of bike-specific signals. He conceded, in his presentation, that it seemed to be a nonrepresentative sample: disproportionately wealthy, white and professional compared to Portland’s bike-using population and its population in general.

“My sense is that people who benefit from the system as a whole are going to be more likely to adhere very staunchly to traffic rules.”
— PSU engineering student Samson Thompson

“My sense is that people who benefit from the system as a whole are going to be more likely to adhere very staunchly to traffic rules,” Thompson said.

In an interview after his presentation, Thompson added that based on his own experience, the decision of a bike user not to weave through a crowd of stopped bikes in order to get past a queue of other riders and jump a red light (even if it’s physically possible) isn’t merely about social pressure.

“It’s not that they’re going to think I’m a jerk,” Thompson said. “It’s more trouble.”

Thompson, an intern at Alta Planning and Design whose study took home first prize last month among student research presentations at TREC’s Oregon Transportation Summit, added that he’s amused by a question he’s never been asked yet.

“It’s funny that nobody asked me if I run red lights,” he said. “I do, on occasion.”

NOTE: At BikePortland, we love your comments. We love them so much that we devote many hours every week to read them and make sure they are productive, inclusive, and supportive. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with someone. It means you must do it with tact and respect. If you see an inconsiderate or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan and Michael

60 Comments
  • Dan October 31, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Waited my turn at the 9th & Alder intersection, then took the left turn on a green arrow to head up the Broadway bridge, only to be nearly hit by a cyclist running his red light in the opposite direction. Awesome.

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    • lahar legar October 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      There are times when I’m more endangered by cyclists then I am by cars. For the life of me I really do no understand, passing on the right or running lights or silently passing someone too closely. It is so easy and polite to say “coming up”, it is so easy to be predictable.

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      • Heidi October 31, 2014 at 2:42 pm

        I had an odd close encounter with a cyclist a while back, in which I was waiting at a 4-way stop to make a left turn and had the oncoming cyclist I was waiting for get so close to me that his pedal clipped my ankle. He continued on his way despite my “what the —-” calling after him. I still wonder what he might have been under the influence of, on a Sunday morning.

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        • Chris I October 31, 2014 at 3:24 pm

          Strava.

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      • oliver October 31, 2014 at 3:16 pm

        I understand the point you are trying to make; during September I had quite a few morning commuters passing on the right (it’s always at stoplights right?) And just yesterday (mea culpa, I was driving) I saw some dipshit with colored hair running the red at 4th on Burnside. Actually now that I think about it, I wonder if it was the same dipshit with colored hair I saw ride through the red light at Grand on Couch last month.

        But; If we’re being honest, you’re probably rarely more endangered by people pulling bonehead moves on bicycles than you are by distracted people in cars.

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    • q`Tzal October 31, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      My introduction to downtown Portland riders was being stopped at a red light in the bike lane next to a car. A fast rider raced past me, brushing my panniers and ran the red light at full speed with no attempt to slow and at least 10-15 seconds until the light changed.

      The car driver and I shared an exasperated look and the universal hand sign for “WTF was that?!?”

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    • Sho November 4, 2014 at 12:42 pm

      Just about got t-boned by a cyclist blowing the stop sign @ 26th and Clinton today after I waited my turn to peddle on.

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  • Paul H October 31, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    There’s a huge difference between “this stoplight is not doing its job efficiently” and “I can ignore this stoplight.”

    The former is the approach taken when cautiously rolling through a red light at an intersection devoid of encroaching traffic, the latter when blowing through it at or near full speed, sometimes at downtown intersections without good views of cross traffic.

    As for me, I rarely roll stoplights (though I roll stop signs regularly), but I can understand the first approach. The second is completely beyond my understanding.

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  • Allan October 31, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    One reason I’ll push past someone is if they aren’t properly triggering the light so they miss it. One particularly egregious example was a person wearing headphones so they couldn’t hear multiple comments about how they needed to move onto the sensor.

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  • wade October 31, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    The high number of cyclists who stop at red lights in Portland has certainly changed my habits since I moved here, although I have also observed that at least downtown, running a red light has little overall commute benefit since once you run one, it’s likely you’ll have to keep on running the following red lights to make running the first red light worth it. Who wants to run a red light only to find another to blow through seconds later merely one short block away?! Running one light is fine, if done respectfully in a quiet, elegant manner that doesn’t elicit a Bike Portland comment the next time the theme comes up, but the risks of being ticketed and velo-reprimanded would be too much if multiplied over many lights.

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    • Karl Dickman October 31, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      Definitely observed this on one commute up Broadway a few years ago. There was a guy whose pace was a little bit slower than mine, but he ran every light where cross traffic was clear. But of course not every intersection was clear, so I still caught up to him every few blocks. It looked like a lot of law breaking for no benefit whatsoever.

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      • spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 9:24 am

        A car-centric point of view. Traffic signal statutes are written for and by motorists and have little benefit for pedestrians or cyclists. I personally applaud anyone who engages in jay biking or jay walking (safely).

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        • wsbob November 1, 2014 at 11:51 am

          “A car-centric point of view. Traffic signal statutes are written for and by motorists and have little benefit for pedestrians or cyclists. …” spare_wheel

          What an ****, **** (Words deleted by moderator – Please don’t make personal insults WSBOB. – JM) notion. Traffic signals serve to help safely regulate use of the road for all road users, regardless of their mode of travel on the road. Your boast about violating traffic signals yet eluding citation sets a very poor example. Encouraging people not to stop for stop lights and stop signs, can aggravate already difficult conditions in many traffic situations.

          Karl Dickman: very good observation about how timing of traffic signals can help regulate traffic flow. Road users regulating the speed they’re traveling, can often match their rate of travel to the change of red to green lights, so they don’t have to stop for a long stretch.

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          • spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 2:16 pm

            A neighboring state gave cyclists the legal right to run stop signs and red lights with no discernible increase in public safety risk. Another neighboring state has given pedestrians the right to enter the roadway at any point without a discernible effect on public safety.

            Jay biking and jay walking are illegal only because our society favors the *perceived* convenience of motorists over the right of human beings to use roadways in a safe manner.

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            • wsbob November 1, 2014 at 8:08 pm

              Society favors the safety of everyone in their use of a range of modes of travel, to use the road. Is some ‘catch up’ in order, to additionally enhance safety that Oregon laws have been written to consider, by which to help provide for vulnerable road users? Could be.

              Let’s have some ideas about what changes such enhancements might well could be, rather than taking the big ‘chip on the shoulder’ view that the laws haven’t been conceived to give any consideration at all to peoples’ use of the road by means other than motor vehicles.

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              • soren November 2, 2014 at 2:10 pm

                wsbob, do jay walkers have a “chip on their shoulder” when they look both ways and cross a road?

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                • wsbob November 2, 2014 at 5:18 pm

                  If you’ve got something to say, then do so.

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              • mckillio November 3, 2014 at 10:20 am

                Society has absolutely engineered streets almost entirely for automobiles and for the most part only recently started to think of pedestrians and cyclists, as an afterthought.

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                • wsbob November 3, 2014 at 11:32 am

                  o.k. …explain how you think streets have been engineered almost entirely for automobiles.

                  With some conditions required to be observed by road users, any person, by law on any bike is entitled to use any lane of any street they wish. Bikes roll perfectly fine on any paved road and street surface. Bikes work perfectly well for travel on any street in Portland, with the exception of having to deal with street car tracks.

                  There are more motor vehicles on the street than bikes, because motor vehicles are what most people prefer to use for travel. True, there are some people driving that would rather be walking or biking, but most are driving or riding in motor vehicles because that’s their preferred mode of travel.

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                • mckillio November 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

                  They have speed limits that aren’t meant for pedestrians or cyclists, they’re made wide for autos to easily pass one another and to park along the sides, they’re engineered to support the weight of autos, they have sensors that only autos (generally speaking) can activate, they have multiple signs that only apply to autos, jay walking, do I really need to list more?

                  Entitled to and engineered for are two completely different things. Sure, I can ride on a busy street with a 45mph speed limit in any lane that I want but to do so would be incredibly dangerous and stupid.

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                • wsbob November 5, 2014 at 12:48 am

                  mckillio at: http://bikeportland.org/2014/10/31/makes-people-stop-red-lights-people-stopped-red-lights-112942#comment-5745398

                  That’s supply and demand in action. Most people want to, or do drive, so speed limits are posted for motor vehicle use. Hypothetically, streets could be posted to require all use of roads to be at no greater than, or within say, two to three mph of walking speed, which approximately three and half mph. Maybe you have some other scenario in mind.

                  A different take on the situation, that might be though about, is whether, let’s say, sixty percent of all the roads were posted for a top speed of 15 mph, that part of the transportation system for a given population, could be viable to meet the community’s needs.

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                • wsbob November 5, 2014 at 8:44 am

                  It got garbled up in writing, disregard the following excerpt from my comment:

                  “…A different take on the situation, that might be though about, is whether, let’s say, sixty percent of all the roads were posted for a top speed of 15 mph, that part of the transportation system for a given population, could be viable to meet the community’s needs.”

                  Scenario I was trying to suggest is whether, if let’s say, sixty percent of all the roads were posted for a top speed of 15 mph, those roads as part of the transportation system for a given population, could be viable to meet the community’s needs.

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            • KristenT November 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

              Except that’s not what the law says. Cyclists are allowed to do the following:

              — treat a stop sign as a yield sign
              — treat a red light as a stop sign.

              In neither instance is a cyclist allowed to run the stop sign or light. One must at least slow down, and in the case of a red traffic signal, stop.

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              • spare_wheel November 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

                i treat red lights as stops and then run them.

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    • spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 9:16 am

      I run just about every signal I can *safely* run. I also make a point of doing so in the full view of law enforcement when they are nearby. After almost 30 years of daily transportation cycling in multiple large metro areas I have yet to be ticketed.

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      • davemess November 2, 2014 at 7:57 am

        And if all cyclists were like you and we started seeing much more cyclists sideswiping cyclists?

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        • spare_wheel November 2, 2014 at 9:35 am

          did this happen in idaho or france?

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      • So... November 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

        spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 9:16 am

        “I run just about every signal I can *safely* run. I also make a point of doing so in the full view of law enforcement when they are nearby. After almost 30 years of daily transportation cycling in multiple large metro areas I have yet to be ticketed.”

        I guess this means you never ride through Ladd’s Addition when they are doing the bike stings.

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  • Adam H. October 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    News flash: most people don’t like willingly putting themselves at risk.

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    • wsbob November 1, 2014 at 11:58 am

      “…most people don’t like willingly putting themselves at risk.” Adam H.

      Most people may not willingly put themselves at risk, though some definitely do exactly that. In doing so, they can pose huge problems for other people just trying to get down the road with little hassle.

      Also, many people putting themselves at risk through violating traffic signals, may be doing so through ignorance of the potential for traumatic consequences.

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  • Alli October 31, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    The closest I’ve come to actually being killed while riding was by another cyclist running a red light. I was crossing Burnside at NW24th with the light, and a man with long dreads and no helmet ran the light while riding REALLY fast down (eastbound) Burnside. He came within centimeters of killing, or severely injuring, me. I’ve been hit by cars before but this was the scariest encounter I’ve actually ever had.

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  • John Lascurettes October 31, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Not so sure about the stopped bike effect at southbound NW Broadway at NW Couch. I always stop there (as much as I think that intersection should have been handled differently) and frequently get buzzed by a stop sign blower that I had passed already – even when I’m waiting for a pedestrian or other cross-traffic.

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  • spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 9:10 am

    We don’t have an Idaho stop law but I will ride as if we have one until we do. And to be frank, seeing a line of cyclists patiently waiting for the magic glowing orb to change color with no cross traffic motivates me to run lights all the more.

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    • davemess November 2, 2014 at 7:59 am

      There are times like this where I do wish there was a down vote feature on this site.

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    • Mike November 2, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      I can’t tell if you are serious of just trying to stir the pot. Have you ever had any close calls with other cyclists while making up your own rules? How is it that you survived all these years riding like you do?

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      • spare_wheel November 2, 2014 at 7:32 pm

        my cycling mileage is well into the 6 figures and i have never hit a human being or vehicle…but thanks for asking.

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    • lahar legar November 3, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Agro

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    • mckillio November 3, 2014 at 10:25 am

      I completely agree and do the exact same thing. I will say that I do need to stop at or at least come to a VERY slow roll before running lights though. When I cycle I have three basic rules, 1. Look out for my own safety 2. Don’t impede others 3. Be as efficient as possible without breaking the previous two rules.

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      • spare_wheel November 3, 2014 at 11:44 am

        yes..exactly. the only lights i run without stopping (or slowing to a crawl) are T or Y intersections (where there are clear sight lines in both directions). in fact, i can’t remember the last time i saw a cyclist run a light in portland in an unsafe manner. i’m sure it happens but in my experience it’s very rare.

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      • wsbob November 3, 2014 at 11:46 am

        Suggestion for a fourth basic rule for you: If and when you get a citation for going against traffic signals, you’ll pay the fine without complaint, realizing you’re entirely to blame.

        Something else to consider: imagine traffic situations such as those where many people riding bikes are present. For example, the Williams Ave commute hour run. Do you think it’s right for people to roll through that street’s traffic signals according to your rules one through three?

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        • mckillio November 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

          I haven’t gotten a ticket yet but I wouldn’t really have a basis to complain about it in the first place.

          I haven’t found a flaw in my rules yet (always a possibility that they may need to be amended in the future) and if used, I doubt the scenario you mention would have any problem with them.

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          • davemess November 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm

            The flaw is that if everyone (bikes, cars, pedestrians) acted as selfishly as you the roadways would be utter chaos.

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            • mckillio November 3, 2014 at 1:21 pm

              How am I being selfish? My second rule is the complete opposite of selfish.

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              • davemess November 4, 2014 at 10:22 am

                Making up your own rules (when there are already established ones in place) is basically the definition of selfish.

                We’re trying to run a society here.

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            • spare_wheel November 3, 2014 at 2:42 pm

              How is it selfish for a pedestrian or cyclist to cross against a signal when there is no cross traffic? Who exactly is harmed?

              I enjoyed the “utter chaos” of cycling in Amsterdam — a city where signal running is common.

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    • KristenT November 4, 2014 at 11:32 am

      Then maybe you should be actually doing what the Idaho stop law says, instead of what you think it should say.

      You still have to come to a stop at red traffic signals, then go if it is clear to do so.

      If you slow and roll a red light, you aren’t doing the Idaho Stop law correctly. You can slow and roll a stop sign, but not a red light.

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  • Tony Rebensdorf November 1, 2014 at 9:33 am

    I am a very cautious and law-abiding bike rider. People blow past me all the time: commuter moms, fixie boys, soccer dads on surleys….most of them not bothering to signal. And most of them wearing helmets.
    People seem to assume that wearing a helmet makes them immune to harm or consideration when it comes to bicycling responsibly.
    Stop pointing the finger at those of us who choose not to use a helmet. The real problem is not being considerate of other road users.

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    • spare_wheel November 1, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      Signalling is not required if a cyclist feels it is not safe to do so:

      “because circumstances require that both hands be used to safely control or operate the bicycle.”

      Moreover, many of the cyclists who complain about other cyclists not signalling fail to give “the appropriate hand and arm signal continuously for at least 100 feet before executing the stop”. IMO, 814.440 is a good example of how completely irrelevant Oregon bicycle-specific statutes are to the safety of people who cycle.

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      • wsbob November 1, 2014 at 7:52 pm

        Oregon bicycle-specific statutes are not completely irrelevant to the safety of people that bike. The laws aren’t irrelevant either, in fact, Oregon bicycle-specific statutes are very relevant to the safety of people that bike, and to the safety of other road users as well.

        These laws outlay address some of the circumstances (and offers guidelines accordingly), in which a person riding a bike as a road user, will find themselves. Having said this, is it possible that prescribed effect of parts of a law such as 814.440 could do well with some updating and revision? ( such as in section 1 of this law) Possibly.

        http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/814.440

        Section 2 on other hand, in its entirety, rather than the excerpt spare_wheel included in his comment, reads well for real life use:

        “…(2) A person is not in violation of the offense under this section if the person is operating a bicycle and does not give the appropriate signal continuously for a stop or turn because circumstances require that both hands be used to safely control or operate the bicycle. …” ors/814.440

        The circumstances in which people don’t need both hands on the handlebars, brakes, to safely control or operate the bicycle, are likely many, for most people with some skill and experience in riding a bike. Section 2 of this law, is not there to be used as an excuse to dispense completely with use of hand signals while riding a bike, to indicate intention to other road users.

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        • spare_wheel November 2, 2014 at 9:49 am

          do you signal your stops continuously for 100 feet?

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          • wsbob November 2, 2014 at 5:55 pm

            What did I just write in the comment of mine you’re responding to? Here’s part of it that relates to your question:

            “…Having said this, is it possible that prescribed effect of parts of a law such as 814.440 could do well with some updating and revision? ( such as in section 1 of this law) Possibly. …” wsbob

            If you take exception to what parts of that law specify, consider offering an idea for revising it. At least, read people’s comments before you post a comment in response to them.

            Whether or not I signal continuously for 100′ before stopping, is not particularly important, because I’m not complaining about that specification of the law. You are. You want a change in this law, you come up with a suggestion for such a change.

            When riding, I signal for turns and stopping, according to the law, just as I do when driving, with some exceptions. If a person riding makes a conscious, conspicuous effort to display hand signals for braking and stopping, sufficient in adance to make the intention apparent to other road users, allowing them to safely make corresponding adjustments, that’s probably enough to help keep conditions safe on the road, and ease tension.

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  • gutterbunnybikes November 1, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Just curious as to what a study like this actually hopes to accomplish.

    Is it to hopefully modify the behavior of bike riders who don’t obey the signals?

    To profile people for enforcement by appearances?

    To figure out how to sell something to someone?

    I don’t see where any of this information matters much.

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    • SilkySlim November 1, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      This study, as are many of the observational social dynamic ones, are school projects for undergrad and masters level students. Going out on a limb here, but a big part of it is the exercise of devising, measuring, and reporting on some (really any) phenomena. Picking something topical and local that could potentially be picked up in the news is likely bonus territory.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor) November 2, 2014 at 10:49 am

        The common perception that bike users, or at least many bike users, are scofflaws because they run red lights and stop signs (or so the story goes), is maybe the single most common public complaint about anything related to bicycling. As a result, government officials hear frequent calls for bike-targeted enforcement or legal restrictions on biking such as required licensing. Many people even cite this as the main reason that biking is fundamentally dangerous to a city, or as a reason not to improve bike infrastructure.

        Whether or not you agree with these claims, figuring out what things actually affect this behavior (and what things don’t) seems like a useful addition to this very common conversation.

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  • Pete November 2, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Most comments here confirm what I’ve repeatedly answered to naysayers in the past – that few cyclists regularly run stops and those who make it a practice bother other cyclists more than they do non-cycling drivers.

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    • davemess November 2, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      “those who make it a practice bother other cyclists more than they do non-cycling drivers.”
      This is a VERY biased and skewed crowd on this site. Post this on Olive (which is likely the other end of the spectrum), and see how many drivers have issues with “scofflaw” cyclists.

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      • Pete November 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm

        No argument here, but my point is drivers who have problems with “scofflaw” cyclists are generally people who have problems with cyclists, period. They’re doubtfully as affected by true scofflaw cyclists as those of us who’ve had to swerve or panic brake or even been hit – and they’re certainly better shielded from them physically. On top of that, drivers who don’t bike mostly have a different perspective of what constitutes a “stop” on a bike than those of us who ride daily – heck, many drivers don’t even know what stop in a car means.

        Painting with a broad brush here of course, but as you and I’d likely agree most bikers aren’t really the “scofflaws” that Internet-and water fountain commenters make us out to be. In my personal experience almost every time it’s revealed in conversation that I’m into cycling, one or more non-cycling people in the crowd immediately launch into the stop light/sign thing. It boggles my mind how often this occurs!

        Sure it might be easy to gang up on spare_wheel on this subject (‘specially if you’re wsbob ;), but really, how many true “scofflaw” cyclists actively read and comment on bike blogs? I bet he’s the only one on here who’s ever run a stop sign… ;-)

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      • Pete November 4, 2014 at 7:33 pm

        Dammit! Doing left-brained work all day certainly impeded my sarcasm filter. :)

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  • Andy K November 3, 2014 at 10:09 am

    They must have looked at a lot of intersections and video to find two bikes together waiting at a light in Beaverton that you can safely “jump.”

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  • Peter Goodkin November 3, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I’m more likely to run a red light if I’m at the tail end of a group ride.

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